Behind the Curtain: How Game Reviews Work
Every so often, controversy will pop up on the Internet surrounding games journalists and their reviews, often peppered with words like “bought” and “biased.”
Lots of these discussions, in places like Reddit, comments sections, forums and elsewhere, often operate on a series of assumptions that are wrong. Usually, they guess at the relationships between journalists and publishers, or at the degree of access journalists do or don’t have. But the fault for those incorrect assumptions largely has to fall to journalists — we don’t do much to explain how all this stuff works.
In the interest of shining some light on an area traditionally left dark, here’s a little bit of an explanation about the typical review, about how things like embargoes work, and the how and why Game Front and other outlets play ball with people on the publishing and public relations side of the fence.
And let’s just dispel one myth right now: Playing games for a living isn’t always “fun” or “awesome.” Reviewing games is work — granted, sometimes highly enjoyable work — and it often kinda sucks, actually.
A Day in the Life of a Review
Say a big game is coming out; for instance, Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag. Typically, Game Front would contact Ubisoft’s PR arm, either in-house or an outside firm, and ask for a complimentary review copy of the game.
Review copies are not just “free games,” and they’re not really treated as such. Reviews, for publishers, are a way of getting positive attention on their products, and utilizing the press to get it. They remain a big way in which people learn about games and make purchasing decisions.
For journalists, reviews are major pieces of content that help our readers, and early copies or code are a big part of creating those articles. That early access is often essential — both because reviews written after a game’s release get significantly less traffic (since they’re much less useful), and because the best way to serve the readership is to provide them with information they can act on at a game’s release.
It’s possible to just buy games after release and review them then, and Game Front does indeed do that from time to time. Assassin’s Creed 4 is one example in which, without an early copy of the game, we purchased one. It’s not a sustainable practice, though, because for one, it drastically increases the cost of the review (which, from a budgetary standpoint, isn’t a good long-term strategy), and two, it makes the review worth a lot less because it takes much longer to produce.
What isn’t true is that journalists are just in the racket for the free games, because reviewing games isn’t that much fun. Playing a game for criticism is work, as is writing about it; playing bad games to completion isn’t fun, and yet is necessary for the job. While “getting paid to play video games” or “getting video games for free” sounds great, doing it for a living is the same as doing anything else for a living — it can be fun sometimes, but certainly isn’t always.